Clarissa Dalrymple and David Velasco imagine an art world built on human connection

In conversation for Document’s Spring/Summer 2024 issue, the curator and critic recount the friendships, politics, and small graces of New York City’s cultural legacies

There are certain sacred habitués of New York cultural life who have become, through the tenacious application of their own sensibility—or through their tragic inability to be anyone but themselves—totems of the city’s rebellious spirit. Their presence suggests, against all current evidence, that we live in a refuge for style and taste, a place that rewards surprising appetites and urbane irreverence. In other words, they are the kinds of people that you moved here to meet, and whose occasional appearances persuade you to stick around.

At 83, the English-born Clarissa Dalrymple has embodied this particular brand of New York cool for several generations of artists. She’s gorgeous and self-possessed, which is a charming ballast for her tireless modesty. It’s easy to imagine her as the cynosure for new talent at the influential Cable Gallery, which she co-founded with Nicole Klagsbrun in the 1980s, and, later, as the nimble, independent provocateur who found great people and made space for them in the creative barrens. In a perfect world, Dalrymple would be given grants and sinecures and be left alone to design new sanctuaries for the city’s maladapted strivers. Or, if the world were at least fair, there would be a Clarissa surtax added to works sold by artists whose fuses she lit: Matthew Barney, Ashley Bickerton, Nayland Blake, Robert Gober, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Haim Steinbach, Christopher Wool, and Collier Schorr—who shot the cover for this issue—to name a few. I wish, anyway, that she didn’t have to worry about money.

Dalrymple has been a curator, art dealer, host, muse, and mother, but she doesn’t like to be the center of attention. Which is a bit of a problem, because, when I visit her understated apartment off Union Square, it’s the eve of the Performance Space New York gala, where she is to be honored alongside the choreographer Bill T. Jones and the producer and director Catherine Gund.

I haven’t seen her in several years, since before a stroke briefly exempted her from the more tedious rings of the art-world circus. Propped up in her bed with a cup of tea, surrounded by piles of books, she exudes a rogue authority.

“I can figure things out about people, maybe better than art. Which isn’t an uncommon aspect. They always say that about various genuinely great dealers.”

David Velasco: So, we’re supposed to do this interview.

Clarissa Dalrymple: I know, what the fuck. I don’t even know what it’s about.

David: It’s about you.

Clarissa: I know, but why? It’s very sweet of [Performance Space] to honor me. But it’s like, what the fuck. I understand why Bill T. Jones is being honored.

David: If you were to guess, why do you think they’re honoring you?

Clarissa: If I were to guess, I would be most of all afraid it is an act of kindness because I’ve been mowed down by being struck.

David: There’s nothing worse than an act of kindness when you suspect it’s an act of pity. But I think they’re honoring you because you’re a legend.

Clarissa: David, come on! People are not legends. That’s silly. I mean, the awful thing is I look at it and I think, I honestly know I didn’t do anything. I made life more pleasant for a number of people, that much I will say. You know, I helped them be proud of themselves. And that’s a good thing.

David: Maybe that’s the only reason we should reward anybody.

Clarissa: I suppose you’re right. Okay, now I feel better for having thought of a nice, neat cell to put that thought in.

David: You’ve helped create the world that a lot of us have inhabited, you know?

Clarissa: I’m sort of embarrassed, because it isn’t to do with knowing about art. I can figure things out about people, maybe better than art. Which isn’t an uncommon aspect. They always say that about various genuinely great dealers like [Leo] Castelli and such.

David: I think that is knowing something about art–knowing something about the people making it. Maybe the most integral part.

Clarissa: It’s a good thing to say. Where have you come in from for the day?

David: I’ve been outside Kingston. I’ve sublet my apartment here in the city. No job, no money. So I’m upstate, staying at a good friend’s house. She’s been very gracious.

Clarissa: Dear god, how are you eating and things like that?

David: Odd jobs here and there. I’m making things work. I’m stupid with money. I didn’t have anything saved when I was fired from Artforum. And there was no parachute or anything like that.

Clarissa: That is fucking outrageous. I didn’t realize that.

David: It’s been a crazy few months, I have to say.

Clarissa: Oh, I must say. Can I give you something simple? Like $100?

David: No, no. That’s really sweet. I will be okay. And they’re paying me for this interview. So that’s something. But it is funny because I think in the art world, there’s this impression that everybody comes from money. I mean, a lot of people do.

Clarissa: A hell of a lot don’t.

David: Anyway, it’s not a sob story.

Clarissa: But it is a sob story. For me, the thing that could just break me is not having money. It’s terrifying. Because you really don’t know where to go for it. And it isn’t eating money. It’s bill money. Are you writing?

David: I am writing a book. But you’ve done without money for long periods. How did you do it?

Clarissa: It made me sick every morning, you know? I look back and see pictures of me in rather expensive clothes. I don’t know how or where I had dared to buy something like that. I don’t know how things happened. But weird little lumps of money. One day, some years ago, I got $50,000 out of the blue in an envelope from the ‘John Dogg Foundation.’ It was clearly Richard [Prince] and two other people.

David: Cash or check?

Clarissa: A check, and it cashed. It went through. I thought it was a joke. It’s amazing. It might be on top of the pile there if you look. Nobody ever warned me about it. So you never know David, it might be in the mail.

David: I’ll keep my fingers crossed. My old boyfriend, Ryan [McNamara], reminded me of something funny, early when we met you. Because of your dress and demeanor, I always thought, Oh, she’s an upper-class lady. You told him that you never paid more than $150 for any garment. I think you both called yourselves ‘members of the 150 Club.’ And then I was like, Clarissa gets it. She knows how to make things work.

Clarissa: Well, to be honest, I think you—as an American—think people with an English accent, especially my slightly BBC accent, have money.

David: Totally.

Clarissa: Or they’re classy. I come from a theatrical family, writers
and actors.

David: So you had the arts around you growing up?

Clarissa: Yeah. My grandmother was actually an extraordinary artist. She was in the era when there were many women Surrealist painters. Where is it that you’re from?

David: Portland, Oregon.

Clarissa: Well, that’s very romantic. I mean, as a landscape, just the experience of that part of the world.

David: It was a beautiful place to grow up and a good place to cultivate, I guess, an ‘artistic sensibility.’ I didn’t study art. I mean, I know criticism and I understand the history of art. But that wasn’t my entrance. My entrance was that all my friends are artists.

Clarissa: Yes, exactly. I think I can say the same thing. I know just what you mean.

David: Why did you come to New York?

Clarissa: Partly, it was the revolution. It was 1968. It had sort of fizzled in England or Europe. But also, I must confess, I was following a guy who I never saw again in my life. The worst reason.

David: But it got you here.

Clarissa: I went by boat to Montreal. He went on another boat because he dumped me last minute. I was too stupid to realize he’d met another girl. Then I discovered, to my awful chagrin, that I was pregnant. So I had to call a friend in New York who found me all the right things, you know, abortions and such. I hated Canada, and on the bus down, the minute I crossed the border, it was like inhaling the real world. Which I don’t feel now, but I did then.

David: So you got to New York in ’68 and then you stuck around?

Clarissa: I spent a few years in California. I haven’t lived in England for more than six months since. I really regret it. I’m uneducated. I left school when I was 16. And I wish I’d gone to university. That’s the sort of grounding of an era of your life. I had children very young, like 19.

David: There is something dumb about school, especially in the arts, that can delude you into thinking that you understand art if you understand the things that have been written about it. And there’s something much truer about connecting with the people who make it.

Clarissa: Interesting. Right.

David: People have written about how you have this special ability to know what the next ‘thing’ is, and I think it has to do with you having a talent for people.

Clarissa: Exactly. That’s absolutely it.

David: Who was the first artist you remember connecting with?

Clarissa: One of my best friends was someone called Rob Wynne, who is an artist, and Keith Sonnier, who is deceased, as are so many friends. I learned anything I know about art from them. I mean, I learned basic ways of trying to look and never really understanding. I never understood a thing.

David: How did you meet them?

Clarissa: I was a waitress at this place called the Broome Street Bar, right on the corner of West Broadway. That’s where I met Rob. Oh! And our local drug dealer was how I met Keith. It is entirely wrong to call him a drug dealer. He was a very special man who had a salon of impeccable taste, impeccable interest. And I met quite a lot of people who either sold drugs to him or bought them from him. I had another boyfriend who would supply me with pot and I’d sell it to this guy. Our friend. He’s called Norman Fisher. Quite well known.

David: It’d be an interesting show, artists connected by the same drug dealer. A drug dealer would be a good curator.

Clarissa: Absolutely. He was. And it belonged to the times, you know. He had very high-end clients. One day, I think it was David Bowie [who] came up to his very tiny apartment. And people started noticing these rich people coming around. Poor Norman, our friend, one day he saw on the roof these dark figures dotted around. He snuck into his apartment and dumped all his goods down the toilet because he didn’t know if they were police or mafia. Ghastly experience, because it wiped him out.

David: What did it turn out to be?

Clarissa: I don’t think he ever found out.

David: Is he still around?

Clarissa: No, very sadly he died. He was a very dear friend. There’s a museum for him in Florida somewhere, maybe Jacksonville. [Editor’s note: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, is home to nearly 700 artworks from the Norman E. Fisher Collection.] He was gay. He came from the South to New York, he wanted to get into advertising, and somewhere along the way he married someone and had a child. I don’t know how he got into the drug situation except by using them, and, rather like me, selling and buying. He made a real thing of it. But one day he found a melanoma. And it killed him.

David: That’s sad. When was that?

Clarissa: Oh, quite a long time ago. I can’t really do time anymore.

David: Then you went on to become more of a curator?

Clarissa: No. After that, I worked for Nicole Klagsbrun. She was director of a place called Olsen Gallery on 10th Street. Then there was a stock market crash of some sort in the early ’80s, and it closed. And she and I decided to do something. I had a little tiny bit of money left over from someone who’d left me some, and she had much more. But we put in the same amount. For $40,000 we got this wonderful room in the Cable Building. It was like a French monastery or a nunnery. Felt like a convent. There was no shitty carpet on the floors, so you could hear heels, click-clack. These arched windows, really beautiful.

David: And then you did that for a few years?

Clarissa: Yeah, but it ended pretty abruptly. We probably started in ’84 and it sort of fell apart by ’88.

David: There are a lot of big artists—big now—who got their start there. Collier Schorr, who just shot you. Christopher Wool. How did you meet people when you were doing the gallery?

Clarissa: One thing leads to another. I mean, it’s simple. We met Ashley [Bickerton] because Thomas Solomon was running White Columns at the time. And he had Ashley in a show, so I had to see it. Chris, because Joel Shapiro said that he was good, and so did Ellen, Joel’s wife. Nicole had a real education in art, too, which was very important, because I didn’t.

David: You were a good pair in that way.

Clarissa: Yeah, I think she should be the one that’s being accoladed. That’s my point. I really do.

David: I’m sure she will be another time.

Clarissa: I hope she will. It’s always happenstance, isn’t it, how you meet people.

David: How did you meet Robert Gober? You did his first show, yes?

Clarissa: He asked us if he could do a show there.

David: He came to you?

Clarissa: He did. I knew him slightly anyway. People like Sarah Charlesworth and Tony Shafrazi. We knew people socially.

David: What about Matthew Barney?

Clarissa: I’d been up to Yale for the MFA show and got to know Michael Joaquin Grey. He said, ‘I want to introduce you to my friend who I’m sharing a studio with, Matthew Barney.’ I told Stuart Regen, Barbara [Gladstone]’s son, that there were two interesting artists that I liked who were just graduating from Yale. And he fell for Matthew.

Then I was invited to run Petersburg Gallery, on the corner of Prince and West Broadway. Matthew was going to do a show there. And two weeks before the show was supposed to happen—Matthew, being meticulous, had everything taped and measured out—they got closed down by the bank. Another fiscal crisis. So that was the end of my world and his. And Stuart said, ‘Oh, I’ll take the show. My mum and I. I’m going to drive it out to LA.’ Which he did.

Have you read Olga Tokarczuk? She actually did win a Nobel Prize. She’s Polish. And they’re the most extraordinary books, I think.

David: Which one would you suggest?

Clarissa: I love Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I thought it was an extraordinary book. This is her most popular one. [Picks up Flights] And The Books of Jacob is extraordinary. So difficult. It’s huge.

David: I like difficult books.

Clarissa: Good for you. That’s what I meant about having gone to university. It helps.

David: [Looks at shelf] Oh, you have Isabella Hammad?

Clarissa: I’m gonna read it properly. I keep buying these bookshelves just because everything was on the bed, where I prefer them.

David: Oh! You have… [Pulls out Eli Payne Mandel’s The Grid]

Clarissa: Yes! I haven’t properly read it. Tell me.

David: This is published by my boyfriend’s press.

Clarissa: Who is your boyfriend and what’s the press?

David: Bennet Bergman. He’s a great poet. He’s smart, and knows when to just go on his nerve. Changes is the press, and it’s wonderful. They’ve only done a few books so far, and I’m happy Eli’s book made it to you. It’s so special. Bennet’s mentor, Louise Glück, was for it.

You don’t have a lot of books up there. But they’re all very interesting books.

Clarissa: They’re quite weighty and wonderful, yeah. They swing between brainy and detective. That much has helped, I think. I’ve learned to read. That’s what I’ve learned from being paralyzed, you know? It’s a real piece of luxury.

David: How do you get around now?

Clarissa: Not well. A lot of [the time] I’m wheeled. It’s really annoying.

David: Because you’re somebody who’s always…

Clarissa: …walked everywhere. There wasn’t an intention to meet people. I just walked New York endlessly.

David: You just go out, and you keep going out. How did you do it when you were a single mom running a gallery?

Clarissa: Because at that point I didn’t have any children with me. I had two in England, one of whom was adopted. And then I had one in America when I first came, a while after I’d been dumped by the guy I thought I was coming to meet.

David: I’m sorry, but I think that was a great reason to come. Sometimes the heart tells you something.

Clarissa: Oh, I feel embarrassed.

David: Maybe I should be embarrassed too for the times I’ve changed everything around for love. But let love protect us from logic! I can’t think of a more cynical way—a less pleasant way—to run your life than logic. Thank god for us that you got on that boat, is all I have to say.


David Velasco is a writer and the former editor-in-chief of Artforum. In October 2023 he was dismissed after publishing an open letter from cultural workers calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. He lives in New York where he is at work on a book.